Maximising the strengths of others – the art of great leadership

When you watch people who lead and manage others well – people that you come into contact with at work, or that you hear about from others, they’ll all be very different people – different values, stories, experiences, attitudes – everyone’s unique, right? But in terms of some of the behaviours of the very best leaders and managers – there is some commonality. And one of the things that the best leaders and managers have in common is that they are able to identify areas of natural strength for people, hold them accountable in these areas and encourage them to stretch those areas out of their comfort zones so that their people can take their performance and contribution to the next level. Which would make those leaders strengths maximisers.

I’m Dr Paul Brewerton, the strengths guy, my podcasts always have a strengths theme and relate to life or work or both, dropping at the start of each week for you to catch on your morning commute.  In today’s podcast, I want to talk about maximising the strengths of others as one of the central practices of great leadership and management – how to do it, and what to watch out for too.

There’s a good book on this, not exactly new – it was published in 2010 – but still works today just as well as it did 10 years ago…it’s called ‘Multipliers – how the best leaders make everyone smarter’.  And some of the approaches I’m going to be talking about on this podcast definitely relate to some of the wisdom in that book, by Liz Wiseman.

So 4 points on maximising other people’s strengths:

  1. Get good at strength spotting
  2. Find ways that people can stretch those strengths
  3. Create the conditions for ownership
  4. Remember your role.

Maximising the strengths of others

So first up, strength spotting in others is a skill to master if you want to be a truly effective leader.  What I mean is, learning how to spot others at their best, when they are ‘in the zone’, or as Psychologist and positive psych guru Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi put it, ‘in flow’ (check him out, his name is spelled….). Being in flow is when the difficulty of a task at hand is matched perfectly by the skill level of the person doing it.  The thing with most people is that they’re not great at knowing their own strength areas – what they’re good at, or have the potential to be good at, and that also energises and motivates them. We can all get better at spotting when this might be happening for someone else.

Tips here are to look for people’s energy changing – typically, their focus will increase, their skills on show will be higher their own (and probably other people’s) ‘normal’ and they will deliver a better and faster result than they would in usual circumstances.  Once you’ve seen a moment, or a few moments, like this, be prepared to give that feedback to the person you’ve observed in flow and to get curious, asking them what was happening for them, how much they enjoyed the activity, what strengths they felt might be in play and how aware they were of their changed state. There’s an art to giving good feedback, both positive and negative, and my podcast on this is at Season 1, episode 4 – Great feedback in 3 steps

Next, in collaboration with the person, work to come up with creative ways that they can use these strengths beyond the norm…outside their ‘comfort zone’ if you like.  This may include particular projects, tasks or activities available in their team, in others’ teams or departments, or even separate from work. It’s important to remember that in order for a strength to be outside someone’s comfort zone, and into the ‘stretch’ or development zone, it does need to feel a little less under control, a little more risky and perhaps more challenging. So be prepared to help the person you’re working with to consider the resources they may need to make the project a success: which people and other resources will they need to support them, to avoid the stretch zone activity shifting into the panic zone, where they may no longer feel sufficiently in control and the chance of failure becomes too high.

While we’re talking about strengths here, which are things we typically naturally use well, stretching a strength can feel pretty unnatural initially because people are often so wired towards using their strengths in the same ways over and over again, keeping them at the outer reaches of their comfort zone, but always in control. Taking a risk and stretching performance to the next level takes a growth mindset approach (Carol Dweck writes brilliantly on this by the way), rather than the fixed mindset we see in people who put in a solid performance time and again and get the appreciation for it, but who are unwilling to step it up for fear of failure. Season 4, episode 2 covers some of this where I talk about overcoming self-sabotage: getting in the way of your own success. It’s really important, to get this right, that you’re both honest with each other – what are you noticing, how is it feeling for them, and so on.

My third point is to be sure you’re creating the conditions for ownership and accountability – if someone has a natural strength that you can see potential in, particularly if they are prepared to stretch themselves in this area, then they need to be held accountable for delivering that higher level of performance that you have agreed with them. So as well as staying close enough to ensure that they don’t tip into the panic zone, it’s also important as a leader that you delegate well – brief clearly, agree check-in points, give early feedback against your expectations and stick with it until the end…buuuut, make sure that the person you’re working with doesn’t feel that you’re in control or that you will step in and ‘save’ them if things go wrong, that’s not the idea here. My podcast at Season 3, episode 5 – How to delegate effectively– will you give you more on this.

The final area I’d like to touch on is about your role – understanding your own responsibilities and watchouts as a leader. I’ve talked about the need to provide support, encouragement and also to ensure that the person is held accountable and responsible for their own performance.  More generally, to manage strengths well, you need to be prepared to call out people not using strengths or when they are well out of their comfort zones – as an example, Marc Randolph, CEO of Netflix when it was a start-up in 1998, based the business on mail order DVD rentals. Marc had a wealth of strengths for this, in particular, Initiative and Results focus – he’s action focused and gets stuff started. However, less than 2 years after the business began, Netflix’s biggest investor, Reed Hastings, grew concerned about Marc’s lack of Strategic thinking and Decisiveness (in particular making tough decisions), areas in which Reed himself naturally excelled and so Reed took over the business in 1999. Reed Hastings remains CEO today…and you know how valuable Netflix has become.  Marc went on to create start-up after start-up, where his strengths could be stretched time after time in new and exciting directions.

So be prepared to strength spot, but also to spot draining areas for people and call that out. My final point is all important, what you’re doing here is creating geniuses. Which means, de facto, you won’t be the genius…at least not in the area where you’re stretching others’ strengths. So be prepared to deal with people rapidly out-thinking and outperforming you – after all, that’s your aim – but know that sometimes, that can feel a little like you’re making yourself less essential and more redundant.  That should be OK, as long as you have a plan to deal with your own reactions to that, and to move yourself and your career forward.

So, 4 tips for being a strength-maximising manager or leader:

1. Get good at strength spotting (as well as spotting ‘drainers’ in others),

2. find ways that they can stretch those strengths,

3. create the conditions for ownership and finally,

4. remember your role.

Hope you’ve enjoyed today’s podcast, if so, please subscribe: we’re at over 60 podcasts now in the back catalogue, most around this length or thereabouts, so do like, subscribe and I hope you continue to enjoy. Till next time.